WTF (music)

Rolling Stone has a list titled “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.  Not “…of the specific time and style of music my little world encompasses,” and “…where great means “even I sort of understand it, it’s got a good beat, nice to dance to”: greatest  of all time.  It is the kind of list made by an intellectually and artistically incurious hack who thinks music was invented just when he started listening to a single kind of it and never left, and of course such people have every right to make lists.  The mystery is why RS, which has some pretensions to deserving the attention of paying customers and serious people, would publish it.

The list is sort of interesting because of its wilful artistic tunnel vision and ignorance, and because there seem to be no women on it. But it’s most interesting because it wasn’t made by an overworked inkstained wretch in a cubicle under deadline, but by a long list of guitarists.  I have a lot better idea what’s wrong with popular music today: it’s because the musicians seem to be living in a sealed bubble listening only to people who (from any reasonable perspective) whose collective style and vision runs the gamut all the way from do to, um, re flat? It’s highly cautionary about, for example, academic league tables of economists made up by economists and maybe about peer review of scholarship the way we do it.

I didn’t go through the whole thing, because I got to 20 before I hit Les Paul and 21 before I got to Chet Atkins.  30 is Elmore James, for Pete’s Sake, and I bailed out because by then we still have not hit any of (in no particular order, and off the top of my head, and I am not a musicologist):

Andres Segovia, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Luiz Bonfà, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Mauro Giuliani, Niccolò Paganini, Rafael Rabello, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Byrd, Marco Pereira, Wes Montgomery, Carlos Paredes, Dino 7 Cordas, Narciso Yepes, Merle Travis, Christopher Parkening…

No women in my list either, blush. Here’s a page of women rock guitarists [link corrected 13/I/12], in partial penance.  There’s definitely something wrong with all these lists being so relentlessly male.

Comments are of course open to folks who want to hip the rest of us to your overlooked favorites, and since I have Paredes on my list (guitarra portuguesa) I’ll even broaden the scope to charango, très Cubano, ukulele, and cavaquinho. But no banjo, oud, lute, balalaika or mandolin; those are for another post on another day.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

52 thoughts on “WTF (music)”

    1. Right below #71 Robert Johnson. Are they completely insane? And Bonnie Raitt is another dozen down (more, actually–#89). I can understand that Paul Simon and Springsteen made it (barely, in the last 10) based on their song-writing ability, not their guitar skills (competent, but undistinguished), but Neil Young near the top? Eddie in the top 10?? Keith Richards??? WTF indeed! You can almost count blues guitarists on one hand–two if you include cross-overs (BB King, Albert King, Eddie King, Bo Diddly, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry–barely in that category, but highest rated of the bunch, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn, plus already mentioned Robert Johnson and Elmore James who both should be much higher than they’ve been slotted.). Not one jazz or classical guitarist on the whole list. Zappa at #22. Where’s Stanley Jordan? Maybe they thought he is a gimmick–but then the rating seems to be based on the ability to jump on-stage rather than being able to produce music. Dave Edmunds? He could run circles around the second ten–not on the list. Bleh!

  1. Hmm, a difficult judgment: dobro and pedal steel are OK. The basis for the holding is that I just like Western Swing.

  2. I don’t know. What is “great”, especially when talking pop or rock, where idiosyncrasy is almost requisite, and everything is ultimately about transcendence.

  3. It is in Rolling Stone, so it carries the implicit subhead, “In the genres regulary covered by Rolling Stone.” Like it says, it is a mini-opinion poll of a few dozen people’s “favorites”; disagreement, and other-genre lists, obviously allowed. Lighten up.

    1. No–not quite. It’s not “people’s” favorite–if people voted, the results would have been quite different. Take a second look at the list of “judges”. The problems were dual 1) preselection and 2) one-sidedness of the judges. But, yes, in the end, it’s what they cover–and not very well, mind you.

      1. Yes-quite. They are indeed people; a “blue ribbon panel”
        within this corner of the world rather than a randomized group from some wider pool, but nobody suggested otherwise. The point is, it is clearly unscientific opinion; enjoy it and throw in your own, and don’t bother getting too heated up about it.

  4. Thanks for prompting me to go search for this. The article I found was something from 2011 where many people voted and many respected peers of the nominated guitarists applauded their heroes. Terrific stuff and I enjoyed it all.

    Yes – here are different types of music. Segovia and Peter Townshend do not exactly go together a lot of the time.

    Don’t be so special.


  5. You may well be correct that women are under-represented in this list, but this post reminds me of something I read a few years back on Jason Kottke was complaining that at a recent web development conference he attended there were way more men than women. All I could think to myself is “why is it SUCH A BAD THING that some interests and professions draw more of one gender than the other?” I wouldn’t go to a fashion show and complain about the lack of males (well, straight males anyway) because I know that women are just naturally drawn to that field more than men are. This is the kind of stuff conservatives just love pointing out, “oh those big government liberals want everything to be exactly 50% men/50% women by law”.

    1. If I were convinced that the disparity existed solely because men are disproportionately interested in the fields, I’d be okay with it. However, while that’s a part of it, it is clearly far from the only element at work. I’ve known too many female engineers and computer types and their complaints about how they are treated within the industry(ies) to believe that.

    2. Matt, that’s really ridiculous in this context. Museum attendance, concert attendance (not sure about rock concerts), and about every other indicator of arts engagement off the stage is mostly female. I’m teaching an arts seminar this spring that has three men and twelve women signed up, and my arts and cultural policy class last year was at least 3/4 women. No, it is not an artifact of my incredible personal hotness. Sopranos and mezzos, actors and dancers, and maybe harpists, are where women get a fair shake in the arts, period: symphony orchestras were almost entirely male until they started doing blind auditions (behind a screen, and they had to tell the women not to wear heels because the clicking gave them away). How many top-level museum directors are women? What fraction of art history majors?

      1. Michael you are making the assumption that being alpha dog is desirable, that plenty of women desire it, and that they are willing to pay the various prices necessary to attain it. I think all three of these are dubious assumptions.

        Going back to Matt’s original point: when I was an engineer, there were management career paths, and there were engineering career paths. It was understood (by engineers at least) that plenty of us had ZERO interest in ever becoming management. Did we “fail” (or did the “system” fail us) by living the lives of senior engineers rather than managers? We made less money, maybe we impressed our high school colleagues less — but we were probably happier.
        The fact that many women think it’s pleasant to study art at college doesn’t mean that they want to become museum directors. (And ask them that once they’ve been in the world for a few years and know what a museum director does, not on day one of their freshman year in college.)

        1. Maynard makes an important point: we don’t have any real evidence that Saudi women want to drive cars, with all the attendant burdens and responsibilities of that grueling duty, or that US women really wanted to vote, outside of a few uppity and frustrated troublemakers, back in the day when all those agitators were trying to make them do things that just aren’t natural for women. There’s absolutely no respectable polling data to prove that slaves in the US wanted to be free. And neither Maynard nor I has incontrovertible, personal experience of the alleged non-flatness of the earth, or that the heavenly bodies don’t go around it in the cycles and pericycles that any idiot can see just by looking up. His skepticism is a model for us all.

          1. Come on, Michael, this is a stupid reply, unworthy of you.
            There is a world of difference between a right that has little downside (eg driving) and a job that, while it may have privileges, also comes with plenty of responsibilities and headaches. Do YOU want to be US President? Not just the fun parts but the years of climbing the ladder, then the years of campaigning, then the years of substantial impotence while you are in power?

            You’d do better to argue against my actual point than to waste our time with a strawman.

  6. Even by its own limited standards (“White rock guitarists we like to do air guitar to”) it’s sadly deficient–no Dave Navarro, no Jan Akkerman, no Roy Buchanan, no Harvey Mandel. And Paul Simon, but no Bert Jansch? Pah.

  7. Baden Powell, let him stand for a bunch of Brasilians.

    But yeah, this is a Rolling Stone poll, and if you restrict your musical tastes to rock, blues and country, then probably more than half of this lot belong in the top 100, though not (god knows!) in that order. Of course, if you restrict your tastes like that you’re a sad bastard and there’s not much we can do for you, but whatever.

    And the point about women: 2 out of 100 is still shitty.

  8. Yeah, Baden Powell was on my mind, too.

    What the presence of exactly two specific women–Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt–on this list says to me is this is a list for boomer tastes. I should be glad of another death.

  9. That’s a pretty impressive “top of my head” list you came up with. With a couple more minutes of thought, maybe you’d have included Julian Bream and Carlos Montoya?

    1. I would have erroneously omitted Bream, only because he’s filed in my head under lute. Montoya yes, and also definitely Baden Powell whom chis y notes above.

    2. Any list of the N best fill-in-the-blank should list at the top the most influential fill-in-the-blanks. The goal of these sorts of lists should be to expand the reader’s set list. Hey, you like Eric Clapton? Maybe you should give a little listen to Django Reinhardt or Chet Atkins? If you groove on Mark Knopfler (who plays long, gorgeous melodic lines), perhaps you should try Julian Bream or John Williams.

      Instead, what they’ve done is to give their readers more of the same stuff they already listen to.

      In the genre they’re treating, #1 should be Les Paul. Most of the guitarists on their list primarily play solid body electric. Les Paul invented the instrument, and defined its capacities. Many of those who don’t use solid body electrics use semi-hollow bodies. Yeah, that was Les too. Most of the guitarists on their list use multitracking in the studio. Les Paul invented that, too.

      In the jazz genre, add Joe Pass and Larry Coryell. In classical, add Manuel Barrueco and John Williams. From country, Joe Maphis, Roy Clark and Glen Campbell.

      As you say, the most disconcerting thing about the list is how narrow the judges’ listening appears to be, and how deaf the compiler editor was to what his experts were saying.

  10. Ugh. Alex Lifeson at #98? At least he made the list.
    And Slash should be disqualified based on the annoyance factor of his “Sweet Child O’ Mine” never-ending riff alone.
    Joe Walsh should be higher up.
    Angus Young, #24, really??? Anyone can learn to play those riffs in about 5 minutes. Shouldn’t even be on this list.
    No way George Harrison should be rated higher than David Gilmore.
    Not surprising for RS, but I would rate Eddie Van Halen much lower. Great guitar player for his genre, but he was pretty much a one-trick pony with an emphasis on the trick. His playing style went stale after a while. It’s telling that 1) When he expanded his horizons he went to synth instead of more interesting but less flashy guitar playing (and bored me even more), and 2) he’s no longer touring or recording. And where are Joe Satriani and Steve Vai? Eddie gets #8 because he popularized it first, but those who did it better get no mention?

    WTF indeed, but par for this course.

    1. Uh, Van Halen has an album out next month and a four-month US tour starting as well. It’s been all in the news and everything.

      1. Thanks for the correction Phil. I hadn’t heard about the VH comeback, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen or heard anything about Eddy that I assumed he had permanently retired or something. Hell, Valerie Bertinelli’s been in the public view MUCH more than Eddy for at least the last ten years.

      2. I looked it up. 1st album in 14 years. I wondered who would be singing and playing bass since Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony are in Chickenfoot now (I love their debut album, haven’t heard the new one yet). I see David Lee is back, and Wolfgang has joined the band. Should be interesting.

  11. Why Paganini? The reasons I can imagine are (1) he is a famous virtuoso; (2) he played the guitar; (3) modern guitarists often play his virtuoso pieces; and (4) he wrote works for the guitar.

    But the instrument which Paganini mastered and for which he wrote his famous showpieces was the violin. We don’t know how good he was at the guitar. His guitar compositions are much less well known and would likely be unknown but for his tremendous reputation as a violinist.

    1. Paganini was AFIK the most famous guitarist of his time, independently of his violin chops, and very influential on others (which scores “greatness” points). Of course we never heard him play…

      1. We don’t have to have heard him play to know that he had incredible chops — look at the music he left us. He was a monster. We have surviving guitars from the period, so we have a pretty good idea of what he sounded like, as well.

        What we don’t have are transcriptions of his improvisations, and he almost certainly did some improvisation in his cadenzas.

  12. If you want a “two-fer”, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a pioneer of the electric guitar, female, and outside of rock but incredibly influential on the first generation of rock electric guitarists–probably more so than any single person other than Les Paul. But she’s fallen into complete obscurity.

    And while we’re at it, I deplore the fact that it’s apparently not possible to actually see the list of 100 names, but only a slideshow.

  13. I wish to amend my first list with Tchavolo Schmitt and Stochelo Rosenberg, maybe George Cole. Le jazz manouche vit toujours.

  14. In solfege, “…from do to, um, re flat…” would be either

    from do to di …


    from do to ra …

  15. This list should be titled “The 100 Best Guitarists Chosen by the Rolling Stone’s Favorite Guitarists”.

    1. It was said of a bear walking on two legs that the remarkable thing about it is not that it’s done well but that it’s done at all.

      I followed your link. That playing would have been far better off never being done. Tell Taylor to stick to music.

  16. Obviously you get a rock-oriented list from Rolling Stone. Even thinking about it in rock terms, though, my problem is that they have way too many rhythm guitarists (Angus Young, who technically plays lead but who plays very simple chords and solos; Pete Townsend) and singer-songwriter types (Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Lou Reed) on the list. And too many people are on there just because they are popular (Springsteen, John Lennon). (I have a feeling that if they did a survey of the top 100 roadies in rock and roll history, Rolling Stone would find a way to put Springsteen on the list.)

    You should be looking for technical competence. In that respect, yeah, Bonnie Raitt and Alex Lifeson’s ratings are criminally low. Where’s Ted Nugent, by the way?

    1. Where’s Ted Nugent, by the way?

      Probably where he belongs — out in the woods somewhere hunting.
      Otherwise agree 100%.

      1. It’s easy to not take Nugent seriously because of his image, but he was and is a very good lead guitarist. Check out some youtubes if you don’t believe me.

  17. Steve Morse–voted best guitarist five years in a row in Guitar Player magazine–nowhere to be found. Same for Steve Howe.
    Criminal to overlook Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia, and I’d put Steve Stevens up against Paul Simon any day.

  18. sigh.
    would you (pretty) please correct your link that supposedly goes to a list of “women rock guitarists”? It currently goes to a post about anti-union actions during a strike.

  19. Haven’t made it all the way thought the list yet, but haven’t found the names of Tony Rice, Frank Vignola, or Emily Remler yet. If they aren’t there, then the list is a joke

    There are some great young female guitarists coming out of the acoustic-music program at Berklee. If you go to YouTube and search on “Mark O’Connor Berklee” you’ll find a series of clips from a 2009 concert featuring O’Connor and a bunch of students. One young lady whose name I am blanking on right now more than holds her own in a group that includes O’Connor, Julian Lage, and Sierra Hull.

    Speaking of O’Connor, he was a superb guitarist until a wrist problem forced him to focus exclusively on the violin.

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